It is impossible for any American of a certain age to think of Sept. 11, 2001, without recalling what they were doing and when they realized that the first airliner crashing into the World Trade Center was not a wayward Cessna. Only later did we learn it was the opening move in the worst terrorist attack ever against the United States. Similarly, for the families and friends of those who died in the attack or in trying to rescue those trapped in its flames, memories of that day a decade later are mostly of the last precious moments spent with a lost loved one. Time may heal all wounds, but it can never ease all of the pain caused by such losses. That is why America pauses today to remember. And to be reminded of what we are.
To appreciate how genuinely exceptional America is, it is only necessary to recall all that we have been through. Our Civil War exacted untold blood and sacrifice on both sides and very nearly put an end to our nation for all time. But we reconciled and grew stronger. Successive generations later endured and won two world wars, but not without losses of treasure and life without precedent in American history. Again we survived and grew stronger.
We also suffered an economic calamity in the Great Depression that for a decade left millions of us hungry, homeless and without hope. But yet again we survived and grew stronger. And along the way, we’ve seen leaders cruelly struck down, natural disasters wreak untold havoc, social and political dysfunction spread, and so much more. And yet, through it all, we Americans have survived and grown stronger, freer and more prosperous.
Today, 10 years after the last acrid whiff of smoke drifted away from the smoldering ruins in New York, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pa., we have met many of the challenges that followed the attacks on 9/11. We are exacting justice for those who attacked us, even as we live daily lives whose routines have been changed in a thousand different ways to prevent another such onslaught. We continue to struggle with political divisions, disunity of spirit and economic afflictions that in some respects exceed even those in the darkest days of the 1930s.
What we can depend on is that the days ahead will be hard and nothing can be taken for granted. What we know is that freedom isn’t free for this generation or any other. As President John F. Kennedy once said of another time of national testing, we face “a long twilight struggle” in the war to defeat terrorism and the grinding tyranny that would surely follow its victory. We must call it what it is and deal with it as only we can until it is utterly vanquished. It is not an easy road ahead, but we dare not shrink from it. After all, we are Americans.